I recently, say a few weeks ago, went back to visit the best record store we have left on the East Coast Double Decker records in Allentown. This store is situated in one of the most depressing towns/cities I can think of where you can feel the poverty almost breathing down your neck. Once you are in the store, however, you forget all that. It's a really nice place run by Jamie and Ray- who aren't a dying breed of kind and outgoing record dealers, but rather one of THE FEW EXCEPTIONS where a record dealer is kind, outgoing, and generous. I had gone last year and walked off with a lot of really good music and this time I didn't do quite as well- largely because I rushed everything and couldn't think.
-Really Bad Music And Nigel From Philadelphia's Role In DIY Disaster Land-
Ah well, that's besides the point. Some people relish my put downs and think they are better than when I praise something even. I can get a good laugh and get thought of as "clever." Honestly, I don't like to focus on bad music or bad anything because it takes away from the great/good music and good things. I'm not one who likes to moan, but for all of those of you who want a good laugh here is a brief little thing about an awful guy from Philadelphia who called himself Nigel and made one very bad excuse for a DIY psych album in the mid 80s as so many of these DIY records (that means Do it Yourself chi'dren) are. I mean, does it get more miserable than Marcus House Of Trax and Stone Harbour? Why do these guys get it into their thick skull that they have to make a record!!!! I could mention Kenneth Higney's Attic Demonstration as a sort of pinnacle of bad DIY ineptitude. Thing here is, Higney is really something entertaining and you do get a few good laughs out of him. Nigel is worth picking up if you see it for something so wrong it's hard to contemplate how he'd manage to record this record at all except to purposefully force his Politically Incorrectly Politically Correct rhetoric down your throat and turn a bad record that could have just been boring into a laugh-riot for one spin. (that was all I could handle of this one and I pretty much threw it away- well selling anything to the Princeton Record Exchange is throwing it away as you probably know)
Nigel was having a bad hair day when me made this record. His over-sensitive face is matched by a kind of Prince meets phony Goth/Metal look and he looks like a nobody trying to pawn himself off as a really important dude. That's just what he does, but he's a protest singer. His intents about anti-war philosophies and animal rights are all very right, but he gets mental with them and twists them to an unbearable level of extremism. If you've ever wondered about the words "anal" or "uptight" he's beyond constipated and beyond wound so tight he'll turn into a human screw in a bad renovation of 60s politico/social commentary for the 80s.
I can laugh at Nigel for all his discrepencies and the major mistake as with so much bad music is that he takes himself way too seriously. He has to start with the nerve to compose, arrange, produce, and perform everything with a kind of cockiness that turns his boring music and nasal, irritating voice already into something cringe-worthy. He then bashes you over the head with his beliefs and at the same time he has a musical identity crisis. He doesn't know what decade he is in so he apes every bad singer songwriter from Leonard Cohen or a more appropriate comparison would be a nightmare of Donovan to the 80s bubblegum self-serious musings of Richard Marx or Barry Manilow trying to make a big statement and even worse trying to be "hip." He claims to be non-violent and then writes a lyric like:
"He chokes on his blood he can feel his own death/The only time I feel hate is when I smell that dead cow on your breath"
"Little plastic guns and itty bitty camouflage clothes/Are teaching our children war is really OK when it isn't"
This is only a sample. He says in his "animal rights" song "Innocent One," and I'm VERY Animal rights myself (but to Nigel I wouldn't count because I eat meat- oh how horrible of me! not), not only that we are the scum of the earth and he'll hurt us if we eat meat, but also that people who wear wool and leather should be shot for it. He is so serious and so humorless that he can do this all with a more than straight face, probably with a sneer. He goes on a tear about leather and wool in the winter which is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. Clearly Nigel has some serious issues and that is why nobody would work with him.
What this ends up as is an album that is but a mere curiosity, but it serves to enforce my opinions on the next act, Spys, even more. The 1980s were a time of great invention musically and for some bands technology could actually be a good and not a bad thing. It could play right into their hands when they got creative and the arsenal of new equipment could be used as a tool not a toy. So now I'm talking about Spys. Let's hear what they had to say.....
-Spys Timelessly Great Music From A Captivating Era In Espionage-
If Spys is not a familiar name to you, but Foreigner is you are among the vast majority. If both bands strike a chord with your love of music on very different grounds you are me and anyone else with taste. What Spys were was a spin-off group from the original Foreigner, a band who hoped to achieve the same kind of huge success as their former background role in that band had done, yet would be totally different and strike out on its own.
Once upon a time there was Foreigner. They made a lot of money, a lot of great music, they were a true super group with a lot of hits. However, all was not well with the first recording line up (Lou Gramm had stepped in reluctantly for Ian Lloyd and now was laughing all the way to the bank in surprise) when keyboards player Al Greenwood and bass player Ed Gagliardi wanted more creative freedom. In fact, when they pressed their desire for the band to be more of a democracy and less about Mick Jones and Lou Gramm they ended up out of the band. Foreigner wouldn't be hurt very much by their departure and at first it seemed neither would they, but time would unfortunately prove that Spys would never quite hit the huge success of the band they came out of and that Foreigner would way outlive their promising career.
The reason for Spys only having one hit in "Don't Run My Life" is pretty easy to see from a die hard Foreigner fan's perspective. Gagliardi on bass and vocals, Greenwood on keyboards and vocals joined forces with 3 New York State friends to form Spys- a band very unlike Foreigner. Joining them were guitarist/vocalist John Di Gaudio, drummer/vocalist Billy Milne, and lead vocalist John Blanco. This fivesome sprung up with an awesome debut album in 1982 that owed nothing to their past and was a shockingly different sound from Foreigner's. John Blanco's sometimes Russell Mael of Sparks meets Dave Davies showy yet not obtrusive voice is as far from Lou Gramm as you can get. Heavy progressive leanings with lots of complex keyboards and intellectually challenging lyrics make Spys even more different. Then there is the heavy Beatles influence in the harmonies and a lot of those there are. Clearly a band who would take advantage of getting clever in a recording studio future Shy producer Neil Kernon helped realize their hopes of a brand new start on their debut self-titled album. The production is clean and clear without being too much so. You get the feeling that a lot of passion is being put into their music, and Spys have found a comfortable medium between Pomp Rock and full on progressive leanings. If Marrillion are considered progressive that's an insult to early Genesis and all prog rock. That Spys truly are progressive way more so than their competition would be proven even more on their 2nd and final release Behind Enemy Lines. Here we get the insidiously catchy irresistible hit "Don't Run My Life" and thinking man's mini epics like the apocalyptic, amazing "Ice Age." Spys balance their two sides together well and occasionally they meet as in the album's second track "She Can't Wait." This song about hatred for an overbearing female is echoed throughout the album with many open references to a disgust for the opposite sex. I've found this common in AOR/Pomp. Whether it's the European take of Skagarack, the British firey hatred of Shy or Tobruk, or Spys a lot of melodic metal/AOR/pomp/progressive rock isn't too pleased with personal relations between males and females. "Danger" is a song about an invitation to disaster by provoking someone who is very insecure into a relationship whilst "Into The Night" is a truly creepy, malevolent ode to Jack The Ripper. In both songs Blanco is very believable, even sounding very at home with his split personalities. Perhaps the harmonies of Spys are their most enduring aspect. Rich multilayered vocals and a hugely sympathetic lead voice make for some really nice listening. Spys take on a lot here- it's not got the unsure vibe of a first album and rather sounds like a technologically advanced work of seasoned veterans. Sure, there's a clumsy line here or wrong note there, but funnily enough that's the only similarity with Foreigner. Fans must have been shocked, maybe even some found this new progressive direction impossible when compared to the no-nonsense melodic rock of the band Ed Gagliardi and Al Greenwood had helped to form.
Instead of playing it safe Spys did the exact opposite. For Behind Enemy Lines they took over production chores between Ed and Al with the resulting album so progressive, so arty, so symphonically splendid that Foreigner was obviously a thing of the distant past in this new band. Tricks of all kinds are tried. There are more art rock lyrical concerns, rock opera with Russian language chanting in the title track, the bizarre Sparks meets a modern art Deep Purple of "Sheep Don't Talk Back," and the grandiose balladry of "Younger Days." John Blanco's voice is again a really good one that is somewhat high pitched, but not screaming out like Tony Mills of Shy or Steve Perry influenced like Skagarack mainman Torben Schmidt. The emphasis is again put on harmonies and every new keyboard sound Al Greenwood could get at. This could have been a fatal error. However, Greenwood knew how to play his keyboards tastefully and he also knew exactly how to paint pictures not make dumb little noises with his synthesizers. The playing, writing, vocals, and production are stunningly professional.
I wish these guys had been given a chance. I wish they could have been left to stand on their own as an entirely new and different band, but sales were not encouraging and when the second record didn't match up to the minor commercial success of the first soon they were no longer with us. It must have been a terrible blow. They must have been really depressed by their lack of huge sales when Foreigner were selling millions. What can be said about both Foreigner and Spys is that they have weathered time well. Both bands made great music and both should be seen as not a continuation of each other, but rather two opposites with one underlying thread to connect them- brilliant music with a lot of emotion and no compromises. Listen to Spys and don't even bother with Nigel. Unless you want to hear just how polarized the 80s were between amazing and total dreck.